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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

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Michael Powell

By William K. Everson
(Films in Review: May 1990)
There can be no doubt, states Everson, that the creativity and beauty Powell brought to film will continue to inspire and encourage filmmakers, film students and "ordinary" audiences for generations to come.

     The last dozen years of Michael Powell's life were remarkably happy and rewarding ones. Few major directors who have been shunted aside or forgotten by the industry have lived to see their life's work re-acclaimed to the degree that his was. Certainly Griffith didn't. Some directors, like Herbert Brenton and Powell's own particular idol Rex Ingram, never were really rediscovered, and remain in undeserved obscurity. For Powell, the renaissance probably began at the Telluride Festival in Colorado (significantly, not in his native country of England) in 1977. Since then he lived to see his once vilified Peeping Tom (the film that literally cost him his career) regarded as one of his major works, to be honored with full scale retrospectives of his work at the Museum of Modern Art, the national Film Theatre in London and elsewhere, to be lionized with tributes at Festivals all over the world, to work with young film-making students during his tenure as Artist-in-Residence at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and, even if only tangentially, to be involved in production again.

     During those years he was able to produce the literally monumental first part of his autobiography and to see it published, and to finish most of the work on its second volume. Best of all, in 1984, he married Thelma Schoonmaker - Martin Scorsese's film editor, and a lady whose passion for film matched his own - and their years together were incredibly happy ones. As Michael himself stated in the moving introduction to his autobiography, he was quite satisfied with the way life had treated him and with what he had been able to contribute to life, and was quite willing to plunge into (even curious about) whatever came after the final reel. [Conductor 71 would be waiting for him of course <G> - to quote Peter Pan "To die will be an awfully big adventure"] But as so often happens, when death came, the timing was off - badly. Another year would have given Michael the opportunity to direct one more film (there was a very definite project in view [The Tempest?]) and to see the second volume of his autobiography in print. It might even have seen him recognized in the New Year's Honors list, something his friends had been working toward. Not that Michael was hungry for status or a title ... but he loved England so passionately, and poured that love into his films, treating England's flaws and foibles with as much affection as her greatness (particularly in films like A Canterbury Tale) that it would have meant a great deal to Michael to see that dedication officially recognized by the country itself. The story goes that Michael was denied a knighthood because of Churchill's wartime opposition to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. But while the story might have has some basis in fact in the 40s, it certainly doesn't hold water today. Churchill was not a vindictive man, and in any case his power - even his life - was over well before true recognition came to Powell. The probable truth is that Powell's own integrity caused the slight. Many years ago he was indeed offered a decoration but declined it unless his writer/collaborator Emeric Pressburger was likewise honored, feeling that the work was so much the product of a team that to honor one and not the other was both pointless and unfair. The offer was promptly withdrawn, and British Royalty, not used to being snubbed, didn't make it again. But with all the urgings from Michael's friends in high places - urgings that were renewed when it was discovered that his illness was terminal - there is a good chance that there might have been a change of heart for 1991's New Year's Honors. (And it might be added that Michael was very happy with the various honors that were heaped on him in Britain over the last few years, and the collection of photographs of Michael in a wide assortment of ceremonial robes is most impressive, with the solemnity of the garb never once diminishing that perpetual twinkle in his eye!)

     For the last few years of his life Michael migrated between two homes and (in New York) a series of temporary apartments. His wife, Thelma, rented a charming house in the isolated community of San Quentin. It had once been owned by the warden of the prison, and had a fine view of the bay. There are very few houses there, and Michael liked it for being close as he could get to the feeling of being in an English village. And within a few minutes he could walk to the bay and be near the water and trees he loved so much. San Francisco, with all it's filmic activity, and Berkley's Pacific Film Archive, where Michael frequently introduced his films, were both conveniently close. He was less happy in New York, although always comfortably ensconced either in apartments loaned by film-making friends who were out of the country, or in apartments leased on a short term basis. The last of these was a fairly new building on the West side, in the mid-50s, and Michael was always dismayed that he couldn't see a single tree from his 28th floor window. For a while he could see the Hudson River - although his love of water really meant a clear stream with a cow drinking from it and a duck or two quacking as they foraged for watercress. [Very picturesque, but do you get watercress in a clear, flowing stream ? If it's not flowing, it's unlikely to be very clear with that cow there <G>] But even the murky Hudson was cut off as new buildings went up around him. The New York stays were necessitated by his wife's association with Martin Scorsese, and were inevitably prolonged beyond expectations when Scorsese's post-production schedule was delayed, as it always seemed to be. [No change there then] On these occasions Michael really chafed at the bit, longing to get back to his own home in the little village of Avening, a lovely Cotswold cottage in the side of a hill looking out over the valley. (His next door neighbor was Princess Anne, and he frequently complained that she was not energetic enough in cutting down the thistles on her side of the boundary. He was also not happy about the noise of the whirring helicopter which announced that the Queen was coming for tea, but these two Royalty-induced shortcomings apart, he loved the area, one of the most beautiful in England). His decidedly independent cat Sundance was also there - she loved Michael as much as he loved her, but lived off the land (and friendly neighbors) quite happily when he wasn't around. She also loved to show off her hunting prowess to visitors by catching a mole or some other small and less agile animal and crunching on it all night long right outside one's bedroom door. In the morning there wouldn't be the trace of a bone or feather left, only Sundance with a proud smile of triumph on her face.

     But while Michael missed his Gloucestershire home, he made good use of his time in New York - and not just on writing, or in cooking the elaborate gourmet meals he was famous for. Over the past year alone he made several appearances in New York (at the Public Library and at private clubs like The Coffee House) introducing his films and talking about them. He also was kind enough to come to many of my classes at New York University (specifically those classes on Art Direction and British Film) where the students loved him for his no-nonsense information and his ready wit. Luckily some of those appearances were recorded on videotape, so that his input will continue to inform (and entertain) students for many years to come. [Do they still exist I wonder? I'd love to see them] Being in New York also made him centrally available for film entrepreneurs with both genuine and phony propositions, Michael being very adept at spotting the latter. In his last years Abel Gance kept himself busy with "preparations" for his "next" film, Christopher Columbus. It was excellent therapy for him, but it was always fairly obvious that the film would never be made. Although not all of the projects Michael became involved with came off, most of them were genuine. Actually, had he not gone to so many exhausting Film Festivals such as The Midnight Sun Festival in Finland (he loved going to new places and meeting new people) and conserved his energy, he might have got more of these projects off the ground. A new stage version of The Red Shoes was proposed, and Michael spent a good deal of time on it, and ultimately it might well have come off. In the filmic works was an operatic version of The Fall of the House of Usher which really interested him. His association with the Russian-made Pavlova in 1982 was a disappointment to him, although he enjoyed the lengthy location jaunt to Russia. Initially he was supposed to co-direct, but he couldn't persuade the Russians that their project was old fashioned and narrow. To Michael all art was inter-related, and he wanted that to be stressed; the Russians wanted an homage to Pavlova in which all art was subservient to hers. When the film was finally finished it turned out exactly as Michael had predicted: long, solid, stodgy and dull, despite it's sincerity and a huge budget. Michael's final role in it was that of supervisor, acting as liaison in those (many) non-Russian locales where the director (Emil Lotianou) who spoke no other languages might have trouble. Powell undoubtedly smoothed the way a great deal, but from some location shooting that I witnessed in a restaurant beneath the Brooklyn Bridge it was obvious the Lotianou only took such advice that appealed to him. He couldn't be dissuaded, for example, from using the impressive lower Manhatten skyline as a massive backdrop, even though the Empire State Building and the Trade Centre quite belied the 1929 period of that particular sequence. And more than once the director issued detailed instructions to his cameraman who immediately launched on a series of tracking shots, the only problem being that the huge crowd of extras hadn't been informed as to what they were expected to do and merely stood there bemused while the excited Russian cinematographer swept by them! The film has not yet been released in the U.S. but presumably because of it's prestige subject matter eventually will be. A five-hour TV mini-series has also been prepared and that too stands a chance of an American release.

     Powell's close friendship with Martin Scorsese has resulted in recognizable input on many of the Scorsese films, and indeed on New York Stories Powell's participation extended to helping out in the solution of a major story problem in the Woody Allen sequence. (Powell's association with France Ford Coppola was less productive and less satisfying but Powell enjoyed being involved in Hollywood studio work again ... especially since Coppola's studio was the one where Powell shot many of the U.S. filmed scenes for The Thief of Bagdad).

     Just about three months before his death Michael was offered a project which he seriously planned on doing. Luxembourg, an ancient country, has a specific landmark celebration coming up, and one of the things it planned to do was to make a composite film in which key directors from all over the world would be invited to make a short film in some way related to Luxembourg, the choice of subject matter and style of film-making (subject to an economical budget) to be entirely theirs. Michael was very excited by the project, especially since a 20-minute film would not be beyond the capabilities of his frail health, and from the moment he heard about it was mentally conjuring up plots and ideas. While it would not have been a very personal film (for all the directors involved) and it's sad that he didn't get the chance to make this one swansong film.

     Although Michael had suffered a stroke in recent years and had certainly had to slow his pace somewhat, his mind was as sharp as ever. Then at the end of 1989 came the tragic news that an old cancer thought cured, had re-activated itself and was now terminal. Not only that, it was accelerating rapidly. Thelma, his wife, was engaged in the crucial editing stages of The Good Fellas, (sic) the new Scorsese film, and since it promises to be as "difficult" and controversial as The Last Temptation of Christ [well, maybe not quite as controversial] it needed her editorial expertise for as long as she was able to give it. The first few weeks of 1990 became a desperate race against time so that Thelma could finish her work and take Michael back to his beloved Cotswold home. In the meantime, one of Michael's two sons, Columba, came over from England to be with him. Those final weeks were perhaps sadder for Michael's friends than for Michael himself, who was heavily sedated. Because of failing eyesight, Michael had been unable to read for some time, but he loved the feel and smell of books, and surrounded himself with them. He enjoyed having friends read to him, even though he knew his favorite books by heart. Cherished mementos filled the apartment, particularly photographs with Emeric Pressburger and a signed sketch from Orson Welles, a great admirer of his. In these weeks due to the heavy sedation, Michael slept a lot and wasn't always sure of where he was, but his mind and wit were totally unimpaired. Bring up a topic and he'd immediately launch into a learned and absolutely lucid discussion of it; if somebody mentioned a film or a personality that had failed, his description of why, and his proffered solutions made perfect sense. If the whole situation hadn't been so tragic, some of his time warps in this period would have been funny. At one point he had mentally transported himself back to the World War II period, and all of his (quite accurate) references were to those years. It was particularly important to him to find the exact wording of the Adolf Hitler quote ("Give me Hollywood, and you give me the world!") and he asked me to check it out for him. "Ask Churchill," he suggested. "He won't talk to me but he'll talk to you!"

     Fortunately these painful weeks came to a conclusion at the end of January. Warner Bros. very kindly placed a private plane at his disposal, and he was rushed back to England. Before the end, he had four weeks in his beautiful Cotswold home, with his wife, his friends, and cat Sundance. He died on the morning of Monday, February 19th. The world wide tributes were almost unprecedented, and the British press outdid itself in honoring a man it had virtually destroyed some 30 years ago when Peeping Tom premiered.

     Martin Scorsese and David Puttnam were among the mourners at the funeral on February 21st. Puttnam paid a moving tribute to him, while Scorsese read Michael's favorite passage from the Old Testament. The hymns, which must have been chosen by Michael himself, included "Onward Christian Soldiers", "Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory" and "He Who Would Valient Be" - all of them hymns which seem to reflect not only Michael's own philosophy but the spirit of his films too.

     One likes to think of a version of Michael marching up that giant stairway from A Matter Of Life And Death to be greeted by Emeric, David Niven and Rex Ingram. But while that is wishful fantasy, there can be no doubt that the creativity and beauty that Michael brought to film will go "marching on" ... to stimulate, encourage and inspire filmmakers, film students and "ordinary" audiences for generations to come. Typically, when funeral arrangements were made, it was suggested that instead of flowers donations be made to the film preservation funds of the National Film Archive, the body that has done so much in recent years to restore Michael's films to their full state - especially those where Technicolor was so important.

     Few men in any field of art have left behind such an outstanding legacy. By rights, Michael Powell should be buried in Westminster Abbey along with England's other great writers and poets, but he'd have found that stuffy and wouldn't have wanted it.

     Instead, as he wished, Michael sleeps in the lovely little cemetery at the Holy Cross Church in Avening, where he was married - just across the valley and in sight of his home, within the sound of running water that was a lifetime love of his. (There's a lovely little brook running just by the entrance to the churchyard). The gentle sound of that water, and the soothing murmurings of sheep and cows, together with the churchbells echoing across the green hills are the only sounds one hears there at twilight. Just as D.W. Griffith was laid to rest on a hillside overlooking the Kentucky hills that he so loved as a boy, so has Michael Powell found a particularly felicitous final resting place.

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